Exercising with a chronic illness is a battlefield, but I think mindful yoga can help.
You know exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle. But you also know it could make things worse. Like biking 60km without training and becoming bedridden for the next week worse (I maybe did this).
So how can you reap the benefits of exercise without living in fear of harming your body and aggravating your symptoms? You may be thinking, this is a yoga blog! You're going to tell me to do yoga! Well yes, that's true. But I think how we do yoga, or any form of exercise is more important than the particular poses or sport we are doing.
Mindful yoga, or mindful exercise, requires paying attention and being fully present when you are moving. It means listening to your body (and learning how to discern your body's communication signals) so that you know when you need to stop and when you can challenge yourself to do more.
But how do you develop this secret ‘body sense’ that some people seem to have so down, while you seem to overdo it almost every time? For me, the answer is mindfulness. When you use mindfulness in exercise you’ll be able to listen to your body, and with continued practice, find yourself more in sync with what your body is craving.
What does mindfulness mean in yoga?
Simply put, mindfulness means paying attention. (For a more in-depth definition of mindfulness take a look at this post).
For a daydreamer like me that is much harder than it sounds. I used to be the girl who listened to music while she exercised, or used the time swimming to reflect on my day. Not anymore, mis amigos. Now when I am exercising. I am just exercising. That is it. Nothing else! You can give this theory a try without exercising. Next time you sit down for a rest. Instead of switching on the TV, pulling out your favourite book, or thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner, try thinking about the moment instead. Let’s give it a try right now. Are you ready? Read the instructions and then close your eyes and try it:
A mindful yoga exercise
1. Put down your computer or tablet and close your eyes.
2. Start to notice your breathing
3. How are you breathing? Slowly? Quickly? Deep? Shallow? Don’t try to change your breath, just notice it. Count out 5 breaths this way.
4. Next, put your entire focus on your toes. How are your toes feeling? You don’t need to express in words, just give your toes your full and utter attention.
5. With each breath, begin moving your attention up your body. Through your feet and legs, up through the hips and the torso, noticing the movement of your belly with your breath, all the way through to your neck and head.
6. Take two more breaths and then open your eyes.
How did it feel? Did you notice anything in your body you hadn’t before? Maybe something was sore or tight feeling. Maybe a muscle felt nice and strong or loose. Or maybe you didn’t notice many sensations at all! Either way, I hope you felt like you had a short check in with your body. So now let’s look at how can we apply this principle to exercise.
To start with, it’s good to be realistic about your current level of fitness. If you have been mostly inactive for over a month, I recommend starting with walking or yoga. If you know that you can already exercise a fair amount without hitting your limit, you can apply these principles to whichever type of exercise you choose.
Before you begin exercising at all, do a 5-10 minute meditation, like the body scan we just practised above. Take a few minutes to take inventory of your body. Maybe you recently ran 5k, but when you do your body scan realise you are feeling drained today. Instead of trying to force yourself to run again maybe walk 3km, or do a yoga video.
If you are feeling energetic, like you can do a bit more, maybe choose a slightly harder workout than your last. Keep in mind that sometimes when you are feeling sluggish, you need a more energetic workout to wake yourself up, and if you are feeling more energetic you need a calmer workout to slow yourself down. However, this understanding will come after more mindfulness practice. To begin with, use your common sense when checking in with your body. If you feel tired, do less. No matter how much you did last week or last year.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to be talking about mindfulness yoga. That is because part of practising yoga is mindfulness. So if you are new to mindful exercise yoga is a great place to start. It also provides a mixture of cardio, strength, and flexibility training. However, these principles can be applied to any kind of exercise.
Mindful exercise means using the principles of mindfulness in this article, along with the exercise above, to stay focused throughout your exercise routine.
Mindful Yoga Therapy
While doing yoga, make a goal to keep your attention on your breath and body throughout your mindful yoga practice. During the practice, if your mind starts to wander, notice what you are thinking about, and then guide your attention back to your body. It’s normal for your mind to wander, but notice how you can also choose to bring your focus back to your mindful yoga session.
Mindful Yoga for Beginners - Bite Size Steps
1. Set aside a time for yourself, whether it is 10 minutes or 1 hour. Make sure you will not be disturbed during this time, and that you are committed to staying present.
2. Begin and end with a body scan to check in with your body and how you are feeling.
3. Use common sense- even if you are feeling energetic your muscles need time to build. Increase your workout only slightly each time.
4. Don’t be afraid to ‘go backwards’. Sometimes you will need to do less than you did last week. But you aren’t in last week’s body you are in today's body.
5. If you go too far one day, know that it is okay. It takes time to grow your awareness and get more in tune with your body. Take each setback as a chance to rest up and work on your meditation practice :).
Try out one of these videos to stretch and strengthen your muscles while practising staying mindful!